Formation, approach, personnel - Liam Kennedy analyses Hartlepool United's Maidstone options
The wait it is over. The National League season is upon us.
Positivity is the order of the day at Hartlepool United, and why not? Especially given the last 18 months of woe at Victoria Park.
A new owner, new manager, new structure - the club is unrecognisable from the one who came within a whisker of administration and potential liquidation at the back end of the most forgettable of campaigns last time out.
The season starts out at Maidstone United this weekend, as Pools aim to get off to a better start than they did under Craig Harrison during their debut foray in the fifth tier.
But how will they line up, and how will they approach the encounter?
Our man Liam Kennedy takes a look at how he thinks Pools will set up down in Kent.
l Formation and approach
So far this summer Matthew Bates has shown his side have a fair bit of versatility when it comes to their tactics and mentality.
Against Sunderland they soaked up the pressure, defended manfully and caught the opposition on the break. They did something similar when ahead at Spennymoor Town also.
Against Shildon and at times v Spenny, Pools showed they’ve got the ability to open up teams at will, create and capitalise.
The final pre-season game of the campaign probably offers the biggest bit of insight into how Pools will line up.
They might have been hammered by Middlesbrough but they tried to take them on by sticking to their guns.
It seems certain Bates will stick to his principles - 3-4-2-1 - against Maidstone, and not just that, he’ll go to win.
The easiest decision Bates has to make in a team that offers competition in almost every slot in the XI.
Experienced Scott Loach, one of the team’s leaders, will get the nod, ahead of Ryan Catterick, who impressed this summer in the former Watford man’s absence.
The only thing that would change this is injury, of course.
In a likely back three there looks to be probably one place up for grabs.
Skipper Andrew Davies is sure to be at the centre of the three with Carl Magnay, last season’s captain, on the right-hand side of the trio.
The left-hand spot is a little more up for debate.
Myles Anderson started the summer in the position but Peter Kioso ended it there. Louis Laing can also have a claim to a pick.
For me, Anderson might be the better bet purely on the fact Kioso’s athleticism on the flank makes him or impressive option on the right.
A midfield four with two wing-backs is likely to be the way Bates goes tomorrow.
There are three real contenders for the positions on the right and left - Kioso, Kenton Richardson and Mark Kitching.
Ryan Donaldson was also utilised in that role at times this summer but you’d think the other three - much more natural full-backs are in pole position in the manager’s thinking.
The fact former Boro kid Kitching is the only natural left-footer in the camp makes you think he will get the nod on that side, while it could be a tight call between Kioso and Anderson in the XI.
If Anderson - or Laing for that matter, get the shout, it could be Richardson who has to make do on the bench.
In the middle competition for places is like rarely ever seen at Victoria Park in recent times.
You’d think Liam Noble is a player who will start, but alongside him you have Nicky Featherstone, Conor Newton, Lewis Hawkins, Paddy McLaughlin and last season’s top scorer Michael Woods all vying for one spot.
Using pre-season as a judge it would be a surprise to see Woods in there.
The midfielder has been used sparingly.
He could, of course, be used in a more advanced role, if needed.
Newton and Hawkins both got their fair share of minutes. Hawkins in a more advanced role at times, it must be said. Newton did impress.
The best looking combination of the summer was Noble with Featherstone, though. This could be what Bates goes with, especially if he’s looking to control proceedings down south.
Two positions - a number of candidates.
As previously mentioned Donaldson and Woods can make a case.
Hawkins has been trialled in this area of the field.
It seems more likely Luke James will occupy one position with the other taken up by either Josh Hawkes, Marcus Dinanga or Donaldson.
Jake Cassidy or Niko Muir - this seems like a straight shoot-out for the lone striker role.
Both have been very good in pre-season so far, but given that Muir has started more frequently would make you think Bates will opt for him.
Liam Kennedy’s XI (3-4-2-1): Loach; Magnay, Davies, Anderson; Kioso, Noble, Featherstone, Kitching; James, Hawkins; Muir.
Match result: Pools win.
Top scorer: Luke James.
End of season finish: Play-offs.